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FIFA Women's World Cup France 2019 National Trophy tour

Excitement is building in France as the country prepares to host the Women’s World Cup for the first time

“I can’t wait. I’ve been waiting for this for a very long time,” says eight-year-old Garance when I mention the Women’s World Cup, which will be held in France from 7 June to 7 July.

The young midfielder, who started playing football a year ago with a Paris-based mixed-sex junior team, has only been aware of the competition for a comparatively short time.

But her enthusiasm is nonetheless very real and shared by many women who have long endeavoured to put female football on the mental and financial map of professional and amateur sports in France.

For all of them, and for many French sport fans, the 2019 Women’s World Cup marks the coming of age of female football in their country.

“The World Cup is going to change a lot of things for women’s football, whether it’s in France or in the rest of the world,” Lyon and France midfielder Eugenie Le Sommer told BBC Sport.

The significance for the hosts comes from the fact that France, which proudly boasts of being a two-time winner of the men’s version of this event, has not always held a positive view of women playing football.

The Division 1 Feminine – the highest level of women’s football in the country – was founded in 1918 and, in 1920, about 25,000 spectators gathered to watch a game between the women’s teams of France and England. But in 1932, the league was discontinued and in 1940, the pro-Nazi Vichy regime banned women from playing altogether, even as amateurs.

For decades afterwards, football remained a solely male bastion.

‘We were pioneers without realising it’

Ghislaine Royer-Souef was 15 years old in 1968 when she came across an advert asking for young female football players in the local newspaper.

Three years later, in 1971, her team put pressure on the French Football Federation (FFF) to recognise them as the official national women’s team. In 1974, the Division 1 Feminine was finally reinstated and Royer-Souef went on to win three national championship titles.

“Football is a symbol because there weren’t that many sports that women could play,” she says. “Football was not for women, yet many women were playing.

“We were pioneers without even realising it at the time. We gave female football a new life after the 1940 ban.

“It’s only been roughly 10 years since female football took off and I realise the role I played. I am one of the pioneers. I was part of the first training sessions. I am now a symbol of the renewal of female football in France.”

She remembers hearing many sexist remarks from men around her, both in and out of the stadium, when she started her career.

During a 1969 interview, a journalist asked her to answer his questions while ironing her family’s clothes. She now laughs about it and points out that “we were not feminists; we only wanted to play”.

Former France football player Nicole Abar is a campaigner for gender equality in football

Around the same time, another footballer, Nicole Abar, started her career as a forward at the age of 16. She won eight national championship titles and was selected 14 times for the French national team.

In 1997, she founded the Liberte aux Joueuses association (meaning “freedom for the female players”) and went on to expose sexism and advocate for gender equality in football as a technical advisor to the FFF.

Abar says things have progressed a long way since her playing days.

“It’s normal for a young girl to want to play football now,” she says. “The parents won’t prevent her, a team will be there to welcome her and she won’t be labelled weird or abnormal.

“That’s our greatest achievement and that’s the greatest change from my time. When I started we didn’t even have a national team. Now, a woman who is really good at football can make a career out of it even if she’ll be paid less than her male counterparts. That would have been my dream but [it is] one I will never be able to fulfil.”

One woman who has fulfilled that dream is Le Sommer, who is expected to start for France during this tournament.

“In 10 years, I have experienced a lot of things and a lot has changed,” Le Sommer tells the BBC. “Ten years ago in Lyon, we used to train on a pitch and use dressing rooms that belonged to the council. I had to take my shoes back home, I had to bring my own water.

“These things have changed. Sometimes we used to not shower because it was a bit dirty and uncomfortable. Those things have changed too. Our training facilities are great. We train in wonderful conditions, the pitches are pristine. That’s my experience in Lyon but I’m sure there are plenty of similar ones.

“With the French team, I remember training in shirts that were way too big for us. Even the smallest one was way too big. Today, our shirts are specifically designed for us; we feel good and feminine in our kits and that’s important.”

Florence Hardouin was elected the Uefa executive committee’s first female member in 2016

Two decades of slow – but significant – progress

According to Abar, the 1998 creation of the Pole France at the Fernand Sastre National Technical Centre in Clairefontaine – the base renowned for the development of the likes of Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and Kylian Mbappe – was a stepping stone and a landmark moment.

For the first time, it created a high-level structure for recruiting and training teenage girls who represented the next generation of the women’s game.

While things were improving at the national level, changes were also taking place locally. In Montpellier, Louis Nicollin was the first chairman of a professional club to create a professional women’s team and he was the first in his position to actually watch a French Women’s Championship game from the bench.

“It blew me out when I saw him!” remembers Abar.

Walking in the footsteps of Nicollin, Jean-Michel Aulas, the Lyon owner and president, also turned his attention to women’s football.

“When he recruits a female player, he introduces her and her jersey to the press along with the male player he has bought,” Abar points out. “He does it at the same time. It really moves me.”

The Women’s French Cup was created in 2001. And, gradually over the past few years, the media – mostly television channels – have started to invest in female football and give it some visibility, with sponsors slowly following suit. The World Cup should further increase this phenomenon.

The FFF claims to take the feminisation of football very seriously. In fact, its current president Noel le Graet even made it a priority when he was first elected in 2012. He named a woman, Laura Georges, as the organisation’s general secretary and another one, ex-pro Brigitte Henriques, as his vice-president.

In 2013, Florence Hardouin was appointed as the FFF’s deputy general manager and was listed as the third most powerful woman in sports in the world in 2018 by the US magazine Forbes.

The coach of the national female team is a woman – Corinne Diacre – who has coached men before. In April 2019, Stephanie Frappart was the first woman to referee a match in Ligue 1, the French professional top league for men’s clubs.

Corinne Diacre took charge of the French national team in August 2017

Things seem to be changing at a greater pace than ever before.

In the past seven years, France has gone from having 53,000 to almost 180,000 registered female players; from 25,000 to 35,000 female managers; from 600 to 800 female referees; and from 1,000 to 3,000 female educators.

Henriques hopes the World Cup will attract even more players and that the number will rise to 200,000, maybe even 250,000.

Though passionate in promoting women’s football, Henriques refuses the feminist label.

“We don’t talk about fighting sexism and gender discrimination or prejudices,” she says. “That’s not our approach, that’s not how we’ve elaborated the federation’s policy.

“It’s a matter of appearances. I am very involved in the defence of gender diversity. Saying that, having an anti-sexist policy is often less effective than saying you have a pro-gender diversity policy.

“We also went from talking about the feminisation of football to the issue of gender diversity because, in a predominantly male environment, talking only about women makes men look away a little. Saying that the World Cup will be a feminist moment is beside the point. It’s going to be a moment for gender diversity. It’s not the same thing.”

Stephanie Frappart became the first female referee in France’s top football league

The inescapable truth that remains

The FFF’s reluctance to embrace an anti-sexist approach (not to mention a feminist one) is often pointed out by feminist teams like Les Degommeuses, literally “the ass-kickers”.

One of the FFF’s educational initiatives to encourage small girls to play football was, for example, named “the football of princesses”.

The Degommeuses point out on their website that “in their communication material, the clubs and federations showcase only sportswomen whose looks and attitudes conform to gender norms (the feminine, sexy, straight girls; the mothers) and depreciate others (the lesbians, bisexuals, trans, but also the straight women who do not correspond to the traditional model of femininity)”.

The number of French female players who are openly gay is telling: there are none.

With the World Cup imminent, it remains an inescapable truth that football has long been associated with a sexist and homophobic culture in France.

Although things are changing, girls are still often casually discriminated against while the official marketing around the French national team reeks of benevolent sexism. The inclusion of all women, irrespective of looks, colour, marital status or sexual orientation still seems to be a long way off.

Abar, who created a version of table football with female figures alongside male ones (female figures did not exist at all before, she realized), says: “The World Cup is a major event for sports, for women in sports and more generally for the representation and rights of women in society. Football is such a strong symbol in France.”

Garance, the eight-year old midfielder, would agree with Abar, although she is as yet unaware of the political or financial implications of the event.

“I think I know one female football player,” she told me, adding: “I can’t remember her name. Perhaps after the World Cup I will. And maybe I will know more than one.”

Perhaps she will. Perhaps we all will.

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